The Arrogance of a Private Theology / by Bryce Hidysmith

 Dancing Maenad from the Capitoline Museums

Dancing Maenad from the Capitoline Museums

I just read Anne Carson's new version of Euripides' The Bakkhai from a sickbed, and a sequence in the middle struck me more than perhaps anything else in the play:

It moves
so slowly,
—the force of the gods—
yet it is absolutely guaranteed
to arrive.
To punish
human folly
and the arrogance
of a private theology.
how a god can hide
and then leap out
on the unholy man.
To think or act outside the law is never right.
But this is valid—
The thing we call Daimonic
fixed in law and custom
grown out of nature itself,

(The formatting is unfortunately my own, as digital publishing does not allow for a replication of Carson's.)

It was an oddly abstract and relational sequence for a play whose poetics are almost entirely anchored in either the naturalistic dialog or keenly specified poetics, such as listing all the different kinds of green Thebes is to garland itself with in worship of the coming of Dionysos from the east.

Still, it does capture the core of the play's moral message, should there be one at all. What are the gods but impersonal manifestations of personal but common truths? Those structures that construct us cannot be suppressed without a disintegration of the human identity. Such suppression is an illusion, they will rise again after coming out of hiding. Such structures must be integrated, rather than amputated. Should they be local to circumstance, their removal is equivalent to the removal of the circumstance, but the potential for re-emergence is not removed unless the character of the organism is such that it lacks the traits that allowed for their situational expression in the first place. Their extinction is ours, even if our alien descendants were to continue to be fruitful and multiply. Perhaps those critics of the Christian Era looked on the text as an expression of an atavistic era where such deeds were required, and in the year of our lord such wills might be removed through castigation as sin. Yet, such talk sounds of self-congradulation and the amputation of the minds-eye. If one is to reject those things that make you up, the rejection must come from a place of truly understanding—even loving—that which is to be rejected. Else, the allure of the unknown should remain one's tireless guide.